Online via www.littlewars.co.uk
Reviewed – 2nd November 2020
“The formidable characters displayed are certainly matched by the starry cast”
The dinner party has always offered food for thought for playwrights and, over the years, many fine examples have been dished up in our theatres. Neil Simon’s ‘The Dinner Party’ (obviously), Moira Buffini’s ‘Dinner’, David Eldridge’s ‘Festen’, Mike Leigh’s ‘Abigail’s Party’ and, of course, Alan Ayckbourn whose ‘Absurd Person Singular’ and ‘The Norman Conquests’ stand out. There is no place like the dinner table for drama, grudges, arguments, feuds and even a little crazy affection to surface.
Steven Carl McCasland has taken this formula and garnished it with a generous blend of fact and fiction. And plenty of friction. “Little Wars” brings together some of the most extraordinary and noted women in modern literature. Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas are the hosts entertaining none other than Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker and Agatha Christie. They are in France, tensions are high, the booze is flowing, and war is coming. Together they drink, and face a demon or two. Everyone has a confession and a secret and as the evening wears on their hard exteriors wear down.
The play is split into two halves. Initially the bickering and sharp-witted banter dominates and the personalities clash with subtle, though bitchy, humour. The presence of the only non-writer guest shifts the conversation into an impassioned discussion of the plight of Jews in the looming shadow of World War II. There is a real depth to the dialogue which also draws in the German, Jewish housemaid whose backstory certainly throws gas on the fire.
The formidable characters displayed are certainly matched by the starry cast. Linda Bassett dominates as Gertrude Stein with a swaggering petulance that eventually cracks to reveal a softer centre. Catherine Russell gives a richness to her lover, Alice Toklas; teasing her out from under the shadow of the presiding Stein. Juliet Stevenson bursts in with prickly invective which you both delight in and are repulsed by. Stevenson’s masterful performance renders the unattractive appealing and her eventual moral sea change quite moving. Debbie Chazen’s gin-soaked Dorothy Parker is forever teetering on the edge while, in contrast, Sophie Thompson’s Agatha Christie rounds everyone together with her outside eye, like one of Christie’s own detectives, probing and trying to understand. But the unsung heroines of the piece are the two characters who exist on the edges of this literary ‘salon’. Natasha Karp’s Bernadette, the housemaid, has the most harrowing story to tell. And it is fundamentally her story we are being told. Hers, and the plight of countless other Jews during the Nazi invasion of France. Crucial to the story too is Sarah Solemani’s Muriel Gardiner who is not afraid to challenge the women’s self-belief and prejudices, and who is just as fearless in the face of the Occupation.
The themes addressed in “Little Wars” are compelling. It possibly helps to have some background knowledge of the real-life personalities portrayed, but McCasland’s skill, meticulous research and flamboyant imagination leave you enthralled throughout. Almost. By necessity this production is a rehearsed reading and the limitations of Zoom, despite Hannah Chissick’s dynamic direction, are sometimes all too noticeable. The lack of reaction and interaction inherent in the format emphasises the need and the longing for theatre to return to its true home.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by John Brannoch
Online via www.littlewars.co.uk until 8th November
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